Monday, March 7, 2011

We weren't really in North Dakota

The North Dakota Study Group is well known by progressive educators from the east coast, and those across the country who have been influenced by the work of Lillian Weber, Deborah Meier, Patricia Carini, Eleanor Duckworth, Joseph Featherstone, and particularly Vito Perrone, who began the gathering when he was teaching in North Dakota. The group has been meeting in the Chicago area in recent years. There were a few west coasters at the meeting I attended, but it is not well known here. I found out about it from Meier and the Featherstones. When Jay asked us to bring AUGUST TO JUNE to this year's annual meeting we were very pleased, but it was not until we started working with the meeting coordinators Esther Ohito, Sid Massey, and Ann Leiberman that we realized what a special event this would be.

This is not a large conference. There were about 125 participants. But unlike the massive trade show/lecture circuit of a large conference, this one had almost no commercialism, and even the keynotes felt intimate. People talked from their own experience. I felt a real attempt to avoid generalizations.

I was one of the "storytellers" in the first morning's panel. The others were Daniel Morales-Doyle and Lutalo McGee from Chicago's 6 year old public Social Justice High School, and Meryl Feigenberg and Jared Roebuck from Lyons Community School, a 4 year old public 6-12th grade school in Brooklyn. We had worked together via internet and phone to hone stories that spoke to the seed of our practice of democracy in the classroom. I had been asked to use footage from our year of videoing my last class. So I talked about empowering children, taking their concerns seriously,and giving them a democratic forum to bring up those concerns. I used the discussion we had around Valentine's day candy at class council. It was not a dramatic story, but the fact that children speak so honestly with each other is the small step that builds bigger ones. The other stories were more personal, and often dealt with real struggles the participants were confronted with right now. As we listened to each other the common themes of community, and the importance of bringing in those who feel themselves to be marginalized became clear, and then was magnified as the whole audience divided into smaller groups and talked about what our stories brought up for them. The conversations were vibrant. As we summarized some of the discussions, Jenerra D. Williams read us a poem she had written on the spot. That bridging of disciplines is typical of what NDSG embodies.

People loved the film, we made wonderful contacts, and even got to act up by driving to Madison to join the public unions protesting there! I hope we can return to NDSG next year, and I wish we had a similar forum for progressive teachers on the west coast.


The edge, the outside lines.
Drawn by those far from us.

Who is in the margin?
What stories are being told?
How does democracy narrow them?

How do our stories connect the lines of marginality?
Does knowing you more deeply
draw you closer to me
or me closer to your margin?

Our stories make us a community but what stories are we telling?
How much is revealed?
What truths surface and what truths sink?
Truth fosters trust fosters growth
But only if they are identified and shared.

Even the definition of margin becomes narrow.
There are as many lines of margin as there are the people who lie within them.
Question: Do I feel marginalized or do I marginalize myself?
Who puts me on the edge?

I feel invisible.
I'm in the margin.
I'm on the edge.
It's easy to disappear from here.
It's easier for me and probably easier for those who don't know what to do with me,
Who's don't understand me,
Who have not shared their truth with me, and I have not with them.

The margin is the edge,
But I have not gone over.

Jenerra D. Williams
NDSG, 2/19/11

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